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Mitt Romney's Meth Labs of Democracy

July 30, 2012

Few phrases pepper the rhetoric of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney more frequently than variations of Justice Brandeis' famous quote that the states may "serve as a laboratory" for the rest of the nation. "Before imposing a one-size-fits-all federal program," Romney wrote in 2009, "Let the states serve as 'the laboratories of democracy.'" Two years later, he reminder readers that "under our federalist system, the states are 'laboratories of democracy.'" And in June, the GOP White House hopeful renewed his attack on the Affordable Care Act, proclaiming "I believe in the 10th Amendment. I believe the states have responsibility to care for their people in the way they feel best."
But Mitt Romney has often acknowledged "what works in one state may not be the answer for another," he seems to have inverted Brandeis' point about states undertaking "social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." Because on health care, taxes, union rights, immigration, abortion and a host of other issues, Mitt Romney is championing some of the most extreme and often dangerously unsuccessful policy prescriptions Republicans in the states have been able to cook up.
For a preview of how President Romney would govern in Washington, DC, here's a brief tour of some of Mitt's meth labs of democracy* in the states.
Health Care: Mississippi. Once upon a time, Mitt Romney touted his signature health care law in Massachusetts as a "model" for the nation. And with good reason. Back in the Bay State, Governor Romney's 2006 legislation is very popular, having reduced the ranks of the uninsured to a national low of two percent, all while improving residents' health.
But that great achievement was a liability among Republican primary voters. So, Romney disowned what MIT's Jonathan Gruber later called "the same f**king bill" as President Obama's Affordable Care, the law Romney now pledges to repeal. Instead, Mitt has repackaged George W. Bush's prescription of tax deductions, health savings accounts and tort reform, adopted Paul Ryan's Medicare voucher program, and called for Medicaid to be drastically cut and handed over to the states as block grants. As he explained earlier this year:

What I would do is keep--as we have today--state responsibility for those that are uninsured...And states will learn from each other, and some will have good experiences and others will not. That's happening even today and states are learning and trying new ways to care for the uninsured. It's important for us in my view to make sure that every American has access to good health care.

But Romney's scheme wouldn't just leave as many as 48 million more Americans without health insurance. His block grant proposal, one long supported by former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, will have predictably dire results. As Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic warned:

That's not to say plenty of governors wouldn't take advantage of block grant status to change their Medicaid programs in ways they cannot now. They surely would--by capping enrollment, thinning benefits, increasing co-payments, and so on.

As the Washington Post explained, that dystopian future is Mississippi's nightmare present:

Mississippi provides some of the lowest Medicaid benefits to working adults in the nation. A parent who isn't working can qualify only if annual family income is less than 24 percent of the poverty line. Working parents qualify only if they make no more than 44 percent of the federal poverty level. Seniors and people with disabilities are eligible with income at 80 percent of the poverty line...
Translated from the federal poverty guidelines, that means a working Mississippi couple with one child could earn no more than $8,150 a year and still qualify for Medicaid, seniors and people with disabilities could earn no more than $8,700, and a pregnant woman could earn no more than $20,000 a year.

As to why his state, one whose health care system is ranked dead last by the Commonwealth Fund, wants control over Medicaid block grants, Barbour offered this Four-Pinocchio protest:

"We have people pull up at the pharmacy window in a BMW and say they can't afford their co-payment."

Taxes and Budget: Kansas. If Mitt Romney's vision of America's health care future can be found in Mississippi, his tax cut scheme looks a lot like what's the matter in Kansas.
As you may recall, Romney has proposed making the Bush tax cuts permanent and giving a 20 percent across the board tax cut that would deliver yet another massive windfall for the wealthy. But because he wants to boost defense spending by a staggering $2.1 trillion over the next decade while refusing to name a single tax deduction he would close, the result is that President Romney would unleash oceans of red ink from the U.S. Treasury. Even, it turns out, with his draconian cuts to non-defense spending.
Welcome to the budgetary hellscape that is Kansas.
There, Governor Sam Brownback and his GOP allies slashed the upper-income tax rate from 6.5 percent to 4.9 percent, while shifting more of the burden of its already regressive system onto poorer residents of the Jayhawk State. As Reuters described the impact of Kansas' endorsement of the Romney-Ryan approach to taxes:

Backers of recent state tax cuts argue they will create jobs and boost the economy to partially offset lost revenue, with budget cuts solving the remaining shortfall. The tax cuts go into effect in January, and the Kansas Legislative Research Department calculates the lost revenue will amount to the equivalent of 36 percent of the state budget within five years.
Republican Governor Sam Brownback has described the reforms as a "real live experiment" that proponents want to see implemented at the national level.

Education: Louisiana. For Mitt Romney, the love that dare not speak its name is "vouchers." Two weeks after he delivered a major address on education policy in which he never mentioned the V word, the New York Times detailed Romney's proposal to divert $25 billion in taxpayer dollars to religious, private and for-profit schools. But voters don't have to imagine what that plan, an old GOP twofer designed to subsidize Christian institutions while bludgeoning Democratic-friendly teachers unions, will do to American public education. As the frightening results in states like Louisiana, Indiana, Georgia and Arizona show, the Republican voucher dream is fast becoming an American horror story.
Governor Romney has been an advocate of so-called "school choice" since his first run for the White House. In 2007, Romney suggested American parents should not only be encouraged to abandon the public schools; they should be rewarded for it with a tax break for home schooling their kids:

"I also believe parents who are teaching their kids at home, homeschoolers, deserve a break, and I've asked for a tax credit to help parents in their homes with the cost of being an at-home teacher."

Now, as the Republican nominee outlined in a recent speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Romney wants to redirect $25 billion from two federal programs into a new voucher scheme. As the New York Times explained:

As president, Mr. Romney would seek to overhaul the federal government's largest programs for kindergarten through 12th grade into a voucherlike system. Students would be free to use $25 billion in federal money to attend any school they choose -- public, charter, online or private -- a system, he said, that would introduce marketplace dynamics into education to drive academic gains.

But as the experience in Bobby Jindal's Louisiana suggests, that system would instead introduce large quantities of public cash into the coffers of religious schools and academies whose educational credentials may be suspect at best. There, voucher-receiving institutions must be blessed by the state. As the Daily Kingfish noted, over 90 percent of the 115 schools qualifying for Jindal's $8.500 voucher are religious institutions. And as Reuters documented, many of the 7,450 slots reserved for voucher students are at some pretty suspect schools:

The school willing to accept the most voucher students -- 314 -- is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.
The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.
At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.
"We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children," Carrier said.

Union Rights: South Carolina. Mitt Romney might think the trees are the right in his home state of Michigan, but he's not too happy about the size of the unions there. But in his effort to crack down on what he calls "labor stooges," Mitt looks to South Carolina.
Romney has called for a federal "right-to-work" law, which would forbid requiring union membership as a condition of employment. But while Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder was opposed, Romney has a friend and ally in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. As the South Carolina Radio Network reported, Governor Haley didn't merely announce that her right-to-work state "does not need unions." She called for the disbanding of the National Labor Relations Board after it ruled that Boeing had illegally moved production to the Palmetto State solely in order to avoid strikes in its Washington State facilities. Romney was quick to join Haley in declaring the NLRB move "un-American":

"The National Labor Relations Board, now stacked with union stooges selected by the president, says to a free enterprise like Boeing, 'you can't build a factory in South Carolina because South Carolina is a right-to-work state.'"

That's not true. But it was enough to earn Mitt Romney the endorsement of the Tea Party darling in Columbia.
Public Employees: Ohio, Wisconsin. Mitt Romney's rhetoric is particularly venomous when it comes to government workers and the unions that represent them.
Romney hasn't merely targeted federal employees for a 10 percent workforce reduction despite Uncle Sam's payroll as a percentage of total U.S. population now at its lowest level since the 1950's. He has wrongly claimed both that "average government workers are now making $30,000 a year more than the average private-sector worker" and "federal compensation exceeds private sector levels by as much as 30 to 40 percent when benefits are taken into account." In particularly revealing language, Romney complained about:

"Our servants who are making a lot more money than we are."

All of which explains Mitt Romney's support for Republican efforts in states like Wisconsin and Ohio to crack down on public employee unions. After initially playing dumb, Romney came out in support of Ohio Governor John Kasich on SB5, a new state law ending collective bargaining rights for government workers, including policemen and firefighters. But after Buckeye State voters overwhelming repealed Senate Bill 5, Romney still had Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as a role model:

"Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back - and prevail - against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses. Tonight voters said 'no' to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and 'yes' to fiscal responsibility and a new direction. I look forward to working with Governor Walker to help build a better, brighter future for all Americans."

Just not for Americans who happen to members of Wisconsin's various unions. By June, the ranks of AFSCME, the NEA and AFT dropped by half to two-thirds.
As it turns out, Mitt Romney finds his inspiration wherever Republicans are experimenting with their junk social science. Romney, who in his run for governor told Planned Parenthood that he supported Roe v. Wade, funding abortion services through Medicaid for low-income women and the "morning after" pill, now proclaims, "Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that." Just like Rick Perry in Texas. As draconian new voter identification laws in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin improve his election chances by keeping minority residents (i.e. Democrats) away from the ballot box, Romney unsurprisingly announced, "I like Voter ID laws by the way... more of them." (Just this week, the Romney campaign demanded a probe of voter registration forms distributed in Bob McDonnell's Virginia.) Even though he once declared his "unwavering" support of Roe v. Wade after the death of a "dear, close family relative" from an illegal abortion, Governor Romney now suggests he could "absolutely" support state "personhood" amendments like the one that went down to defeat in Mississippi. And while he "can't have illegals" because he's "running for office, for Pete's sake," Mitt has called Jan Brewer's hard line immigration laws in Arizona a "model."
In a sense, Mitt Romney has his own plan for secure borders. The borders of Massachusetts, that is. On issue after issue, he has rejected the policies he once advocated in order to win over the Bay State's much more liberal electorate. Put another way, what happened in Boston stays in Boston. But now, Romney instead is turning to policies cooked up in those right-wing meth labs of democracy, GOP states which are already breaking bad.
* Credit to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show for the term, "meth lab of democracy."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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